Iraq: tide turning? And which way?

Submitted by Anon on 20 April, 2005 - 2:19

By Colin Foster

According to the Independent, probably the major newspaper most sharply critical of the US/UK military in Iraq, “the tide is turning”.

Patrick Cockburn writes: “American forces are on the retreat throughout Iraq.

“Slowly, the great American adventure in the country, which started with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, is coming to an end.” (Independent, 12 April)

Jonathan Steele, in the Guardian, takes the opposite view:

“The casualties go on rising… opposition is still growing… The US is failing. Most of western Iraq is out of US control. The city of Mosul could explode at any moment. Ramadi is practically a no-go area.

“In any case, the US is only talking of a possible reduction of a third of its troops next year. This will still leave 100,000… The US has indicated that it wants permanent bases in Iraq.”

Some facts are new. On 6 April Iraq’s new elected assembly chose a presidential council, headed by Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and with Ghazi Yawar, a Sunni Arab who was president in the Interim Government, as deputy. On 7 April Talabani named Ibrahim al-Jaafari, from the Shia Islamist Dawa party, as prime minister.

Hard haggling remains, especially over the oil ministry, but Jaafari has promised he will have a government in place within a couple of weeks, with several Sunni Arab ministers.

Jaafari has proposed an amnesty for the mainly Sunni Arab “resistance” guerrillas.

Reports of talks between people from the “resistance” and the Iraqi government or the Americans multiply.

According to Cockburn, divisions within the “resistance” are widening.

“Posters threatening extreme resistance fighters have appeared on walls in Ramadi, a Sunni Muslim city on the Euphrates river west of Baghdad.

“Insurgents in the city say that resistance to the Americans is being discredited by the kidnapping and killing of civilians. ‘They have tarnished our image and used the jihad to make personal gains,’ Ahmed Hussein, an imam from a mosque in Ramadi, was quoted as saying” (Independent, 11 April).

Pretty much all the known “resistance” groups are Islamist and Sunni-oriented, but there are degrees, and some groups dislike the crude anti-Shia and anti-Christian sectarianism of others.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group which called for a boycott of the 30 January elections, has now done an about-turn and called on Sunnis to join the Iraqi police and army (1 April).

On 9 April there was probably the biggest demonstration in Iraq for decades, organised by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shia-Islamist movement, in Baghdad.

According to Jonathan Steele, a few Sunnis joined it on the urging of the Association of Muslim Scholars, but US academic expert Juan Cole says that the AMS boycotted the event.

The Iraqi newspaper Al-Hayat reported: “The demonstrators demanded a swift trial of Saddam Hussein, a timetable for US withdrawal, the release of Iraqis detained by the US, and an end to the marginalization of the opposition. The demonstrators carried effigies of Saddam Hussein, President Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, each labeled ‘International Terrorist’.”

But demonstrators said they had been instructed by the leadership not to chant slogans against Iraq’s current government.

And the demonstration organisers said that “the political tide” was against armed opposition. They claimed that a majority of Iraq’s Shia believe an elected government will eventually be able to negotiate the withdrawal of the occupier.

The demonstration was aimed at putting pressure on the new government to keep to the Shia alliance’s pre-election promises that it would negotiate US withdrawal; but that people are organising demonstrations to put pressure rather than simply attempting to kill members of the government is a shift.

The demonstration was, therefore, probably on balance evidence for Cockburn’s conclusions rather than Steele’s.

The “improvement” is, however, very unstable. The US and UK claim lower casualty rates from attacks on their forces, but it is not clear how much this is a decline of the “resistance” and how much a choice by the US and UK troops to keep their troops more in their bases. In Baghdad, the US troops generally appear on the streets only in armoured cars carrying huge signs that anyone coming near them will be shot without further question.

In some Sunni areas recently, “resistance” groups have used death threats against teachers and students to prevent schools observing the new Saturday holiday decreed by the Interim Government, on the grounds that Saturday is a “Jewish” day. Neither the Iraqi government nor the US ventured to intervene to protect the teachers and students.

If Jaafari’s government proves solid — if it can integrate some Sunni Arab figures — if the USA comes good on its talk of troop withdrawals seriously and quickly, thus conciliating Iraqis and building up the authority of Jaafari’s government — if the USA also holds off on its drive for massive forced privatisations — and if, perhaps most important, “reconstruction” ceases to be a matter of billions of Iraqi oil revenue disappearing into the pockets of officials and contractors in the Green Zone and Kuwaiti hotels, and electricity, water, and fuel supplies are got going again — if all that, Iraqi society will restabilise.

But that is a lot of ifs.

And even if Iraqi society does win some stability, what sort?

The Sadr movement which now feels confident of its ability to push the Iraqi government by demonstrations is the same movement against which students in Basra recently organised a week-long strike, after Sadrists attacked students on a picnic, killing one of them.

Like the Sunni Islamists (though, as far as I know, without going as far as death threats) the Sadrists have campaigned vehemently against the Saturday holiday as “Jewish”.

The bigger forces in Jaafari’s Shia alliance are more cautious than the Sadrists, but they are Islamists, most of them supporters to one degree or another of the Islamic Republic in Iran.

Saddam’s old labour law remains on the books, and promises of a new one have yet to be fulfilled.

Socialists in Britain need to campaign not only against the US/UK occupation, but also in positive solidarity with workers, students, and the new labour movement in Iraq.

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